Bullshit Contributes to Cognitive Decline
Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s just a bad attitude, but I am sick
and tired of the super schism between real life and the laboratory.
Neil deGrasse Tyson loves to say, “The good thing about science
is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.” What he doesn’t
tell you is that we have the science on TV in programs like Cosmos
and Nova, and then we’ve got the science inside the institutional
bastions of our laboratories.
Admittedly, popular science is aimed at a population with a fifth
or sixth grade education so that the average person can understand.
But must “laboratory” science be aimed specifically at
pedagogues, academicians, and acolytes paying obeisance to hallowed
halls? Must they employ a lexicon that it limited to people who are
a mere .0001% of the population? And why haven’t these people been
forced to take remedial courses in English composition?
When I write something, I’m pretty sure that it is designed to be
comprehended by a reader. If I didn’t want to communicate “some
thing,” I’d keep it scrambled up inside my own sconce.
I am tired of translating written studies into everyday English.
I beginning to believe this entire exercise is not only damaging my
brain, but is completely destroying my soul.
Let me give you an example. If someone wants to sue us for
“stealing” their work, go ahead. I’m linking to the original
articles, but who knows how long these articles will stand before
being archived? So, I’m publishing their articles and linking to
First, here is the study I found:
Leisure-time physical activity associates with cognitive decline
The Northern Manhattan Study
Joshua Z. Willey, MD, MS*, Hannah Gardener, PhD*, Michelle R. Caunca,
BS, Yeseon Park Moon, MS, Chuanhui Dong, PhD, Yuen K. Cheung, PhD,
Ralph L. Sacco, MD, MS, Mitchell S.V. Elkind, MD, MS and Clinton B.
Wright, MD, MS
Published online before print March
leisure-time physical activity (LTPA) is protective against incident
dementia, we hypothesized that LTPA is protective against decline in
domain-specific cognitive performance.
Methods: As part of the Northern Manhattan
Study, LTPA was ascertained at enrollment using a validated
in-person questionnaire. We assessed cognition in participants in
the Northern Manhattan Study MRI substudy using a standard
neuropsychological examination (NPE) (n = 1,228), and a repeat
examination was performed 5 years later (n = 876). LTPA was
summarized as the maximum intensity of any activity performed,
classified as none to light intensity (physical inactivity) (90%) vs
moderate to heavy intensity (10%). The NPE was subcategorized using
standardized z scores over validated domains: processing
speed, semantic memory, episodic memory, and executive function. We
used multivariable linear regression models to examine the
association of LTPA with initial and change in cognitive
performance. Analyses were adjusted for sociodemographics,
cardiovascular disease risk factors, and MRI findings (white matter
hyperintensity volume, silent brain infarcts, cerebral volume).
Results: No/low levels of LTPA were
associated with worse executive function, semantic memory, and
processing speed scores on the first NPE. The associations were
slightly attenuated and no longer significant after adjusting for
vascular risk factors. Cognitively unimpaired participants reporting
no/low LTPA vs moderate/high levels declined more over time in
processing speed (β
= −0.231 ± 0.112, p = 0.040) and episodic memory (β
= −0.223 ± 0.117, p = 0.057) adjusting for sociodemographic
and vascular risk factors.
Conclusions: A low level of LTPA is
independently associated with greater decline in cognitive
performance over time across domains.
Now wasn’t that fun.
The most salient “truth” in this study is the word “abstract.”
This painting is abstract.
It is abstract and just as comprehensible as that "study." As you
can see, the word abstract is proportionately apropos of the study's
Next I’m going to give you the popular science report of the
above study. I want you to tell me if YOU got out
of this study (above) the same conclusions in the “popular science”
version below. If you did….would you like to come work with us?
Brains of elderly people who exercise look 10
Healthy body, healthy mind. Elderly people who are physically
active seem to be able to stave off memory loss – but only if they
start exercising before symptoms appear.
At the end of a five-year period, the brains of non-exercisers
look 10 years older than those who did moderate
exercise. That’s what Clinton
the University of Miami in Florida and his colleagues found when
they followed 876 people, starting at an average age of 71, for five
At the start of the study, each participant underwent a number of
memory and cognition tests, and had the health of their brain
assessed during an MRI scan. Each person was also asked how much
exercise they had done in recent weeks, ranging from “no/light”,
such as walking or gardening, to “moderate/heavy”, which included
running and swimming.
Five years later, the volunteers were called back to repeat all
the tests. The participants generally performed less well than they
had five years earlier. But their scores were linked to their level
of exercise – those who reported no or low levels of exercise scored
lower in all tests, the team found. The 10 per cent of people who
said they had been engaged in moderate-to-heavy exercise not only
started with higher scores in the first round of tests, but showed
less of a decline five
years later .
Those who did little or no exercise also seemed to have worse
vascular health – they had higher blood pressure, and their MRI
scans showed evidence of undetected strokes.
Statistically, this MRI data appears to account for the link
between exercise and cognitive functioning, suggesting that physical
activity is beneficial for the brain because it improves vascular
health, for example, by lowering blood pressure.
I’m done. I don’t see the connection between the actual study and
the report. Reading just the title of the study, one infers that
exercise might "cause" cognitive decline.
I’m done reading studies. I can’t take it.
They weren’t written for me. They weren’t written for you. They
were written in such a way that only the writers know what
the hell they wrote and they really don’t care if anyone outside their circle
The huge rationalization used is that they need specific language and
terminology to avoid any and all misunderstandings.
Right. I don’t buy it. They need this self-perpetuating theater
of the absurd to bolster their importance. Publish or perish is
still the rule for universities. So publish you pompous, pedagogic
prigs. I’m done with you.
After writing this, I sent it to a friend of mine who is a
"working" scientist, someone who performs studies, does the
statistical analysis and writes them up. Here is her response.
I can understand your
frustration but the same argument can be made for legalese or
bureaucratese or eduspeak or any number of specializations. Why pick
on just the scientists? In the US, most non-medical faculty are only
paid for 9 months of the year. Securing grants is not just about
funding the science. We also get to pay ourselves a couple of months
of salary out of the grant. A person from National Science
Foundation said that if the Public is paying for our summer salary,
more than what some families of four live on for an entire year in
some parts of the country, we ought to be able to explain what we do
to the Public. I agree with that but some of my colleagues don't.
One of my friends said that I don't get the respect I deserve
because I don't complicate the hell out of what I do. I try to make it
accessible to non-specialists, which hides the sophistication behind
it. So there is internal pressure within the scientific community to
make things sound more complicated.
In recent years, there has
been increasing pressure for us from funding agencies to give
"elevator" pitches about what we do. Easier to do in some areas than
others. In my area, for instance, I am not curing a disease. I
develop enabling technology which is harder to make sexy.
Your article also
reminds me of a guy from Mexico in the same research group in grad
school. He was in an absolute panic because he was going back to
Mexico to teach but he didn't know how to talk about his science in
I agree. This is not limited to just the sciences,
but that's what I'm involved with. Having said that, we
all have to deal with the government (at times) and its
bureaucracy. And once in a while we have to deal with
I get the feeling this started with "the church." For centuries,
the Catholic church ran governments. The people spoke German,
French, Italian, Old English, but the church spoke Latin. Latin was
the secret language of the priests. Latin added a bit of mysticism
to the church. I remember a priest at my high school who talked
about the changes in the church. He was my German professor. He said
he was going to have a hard time referring to God as "you" rather
than "thou." Then again, coming from a German background, he was
raised with a formal "you" and an informal "you."
But still, the language of the church was mystical. It separated
the priests from the population, and that tradition continues on in
Law, Government, and Science. Their overall purpose of writing is
not communicating, and that is sad because I know a bit about
teaching composition since I once did exactly that. I taught
something that was quite new back then. The rule was "write with
your own voice."
This rule totally went against years of tradition at
universities; the unwritten law that papers must be written with a
tone of erudition and obscurity. And don't get me wrong. I'm not in
favor of the exact opposite that has been also foisted upon us: The
sound bite. Sound bites, in the end, say absolution nothing about
policy, but exist to elicit a visceral response and fire up an
existential threat to our egos.
There is middle ground.
Writing is communicating and if you are not communicating you are
not writing, you are composing, constructing, and fabricating. An
important key to this exercise is that the word fabricate also means
"lie." Yes, they are, in effect, lying.
I will conclude this with a little story about Bertolt Brecht a
German poet and playwright, as told by Walter Benjamin, a
philosopher and friend of Brecht's.
“On a beam which supports the ceiling of Brecht’s study are
painted the words: ‘Truth is concrete.’ On a window-sill stands a
small wooden donkey which can nod its head. Brecht has hung a
little sign round its neck on which he has written: ‘Even I must
Here’s Why Academics Should Write for the Public